Monday, July 09, 2007

Evangelism is Still a Dirty Word ... But Should it Be?

Last night at Space For God we looked at the "Mission of the Seventy" in Luke 10:1-20. It is a call to action and engagement with the wider world, but inevitably it also raises the issue of evangelism. Katishe acknowledged that she wasn't always comfortable with the idea of evangelism and it might be apt to say that this is indicative of the Uniting Church in general. In some ways this is understandable, since evangelism often has the connotatations of dogmatism, one-sided conversations and intolerance. Indeed, this has often been my experience. I remember distinctly observing conversations in my university days in which "targets" were talked at, rather than talked to. The evangelist had a very clear agenda and the thoughts and opinions of the target were often viewed as obstacles preventing the dissemination of the message. Indeed, after the evangelist had finished his or her monologue and had failed to win another convert, they would often have the nerve to remark sadly that the target was "not open to the truth". Ironically enough, I remember that the evangelist would often have forgotten anything that the target had said - that is, if they were allowed to speak at all.

It is for the reasons above that Katishe and other people in attendance last night often felt embarrassed to be acknowledged as Christians. Indeed, when their deep, dark secret finally did come out, it felt as if they were, for want or a better phrase, "coming out of the closet". Once upon a time the term "Christian" was a term of honour and to be "non-Christian" or "pagan" was almost seen as a term of abuse. How things have changed. These days it would be accurate to suggest that there is often a stigma about being a Christian in contemporary society. However, contrary to the suggestion that this stigma exists because Christians are persecuted, much of the stigma which attaches to the name of "Christian" is perfectly justified.

Some time back Bek suggested in her blog that perhaps the term "Christian" was past its used-by date and that perhaps a new label was needed. Indeed this is a most interesting suggestion, since many have observed a fundamental disconnect between Christians and the teachings of Christ. As Gandhi once observed: "I like your Christ - I do not like your Christians". This said, I see nothing inherently wrong with the term "Christian" - in fact, I believe that the term has a mischievously subversive edge. It is a little known fact that the "Christian" was originally given to the early followers of Jesus as a term of abuse, although for quite different reasons than the pejorative use of the term these days. Perhaps what we need to do is attempt to reclaim the term Christian from the "Christians".

While I have no real objection to the term "Christian", perhaps the term "Christianity" has had a long enough run and finally needs to be put to rest. As Christian Anarchist Jacques Ellul suggests, "Christianity" is to Jesus what Communism was to writings of Karl Marx. That is, when something becomes an "ism" as Christianity now is, it ceases to truly be what it represents. Understanding this but wishing to reclaim the term, Søren Kierkegaard suggested that he wanted to "reintroduce Christianity to Christendom". Australian Christian Anarchist Dave Andrews questions whether this is possible when the history of Christianity is observed in context. Indeed, Andrews goes so far as to suggest that to many "Christianity is the Antichrist". In response, he suggests that people who truly wish to follow Jesus should break away from Christianity and form a sect known as "Christi-anarchy". Ultimately, I think that he could be onto something.

Drawing this all into the context of the mission that Christians have in the world, I believe that the Mission of the Seventy serves to challenge the existing paradigms of evangelism. First of all, Jesus followers are not heading out to impose their ideological agenda onto the villages they pass through. Rather they are to bring peace (Luke 10:5) and healing (Luke 10:9) to those that they visit, as well as announce the Kingdom of God, which relates not to some abstract idea of heaven, but to an imminent reality based upon a society centred around the life-affirming teachings of Jesus. Furthermore, they are to truly engage with the culture they are entering, eating what is set before them (Luke 10:8), whether or not this is the kind of food that they normally eat. In other words, they are not to disrespect and disregard the cultural norms of their hosts, but must seek to move outside of their own comfort zone.

The practice of the Seventy seems markedly different to the current practice of converting someone to Christianity and then making them conform to Christian subculture. Indeed, perhaps this is the very problem - churches are so intent to convert people to Christianity that they forget to convert them to Christ. In so doing, new converts are simply followers of a system rather than of the Christ that the system is meant to represent. Let me be the first one to say that I'm through with converting people to Christianity - there is too much Christianity in the world and not enough Christ. I would much rather show them the person of Jesus, because it is my honest belief that no-one ever walks away from a real encounter with Jesus unchanged. While exposing a person to Christianity more often than not has the effect of embittering them, real and unfettered exposure to the person of Christ is precisely the place where redemption can take place. And if we want to truly introduce and dare I say, convert people to the person of Jesus, we must live the life of Jesus ourselves. Jesus is the gospel and to live as Jesus lived is to live the gospel. In this respect, the advice of St. Francis of Assisi is particularly poignant: "Preach the gospel at all times - and when necessary use words".

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